(Patuxent Publishing / April 10, 2012)

Some of the world's greatest innovations were conceived in the humblest of places, and that was certainly true of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

When it opened its doors in 1942, in a former used-car dealership in Silver Spring, APL had a staff of 365.

Seventy years later, after moving in 1954 to its current 399-acre campus in North Laurel, the lab, with 4,700 employees, is Howard County's second largest employer, behind only the public school system. It has developed an eye-popping series of scientific breakthroughs, ranging from prosthetic arms to spacecraft, and become a valued part of the county.

"APL is a very complex and diverse organization," said Ed Cochran, a former Howard County executive and research chemist who retired from the lab in 1996, "and it has a great relationship with the county."

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Johns Hopkins University's not-for-profit research division didn't make a splashy debut, but what was going on in the inside was a different story.

Just three months before the lab opened 70 years ago, Pearl Harbor had been bombed by Japan. In the throes of patriotic fervor, the scientific minds at work in the unconventional building got quickly caught up in developing a device that would eventually be considered one of the most important technological advances of World War II.

The Variable Time Fuze was designed to detonate an explosive device near an enemy aircraft, eliminating the need for a direct hit. These proximity fuses were fitted to such weapons as artillery and mortar shells, and were pre-set to burst at selected heights.

The VT Fuze would go on to "increase overall effectiveness by a factor of 50," said Jerry Krill, assistant director of science and technology. Despite the fuss made over the device in its heyday, it has "long since gone to its grave."

Today, APL's employees work in 50 office and lab buildings, including the new space research building that opened in November. A satellite construction facility is expected to open late this year, and will be the last addition to the campus infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

Ralph Semmel, a Columbia resident and 25-year employee who became APL's eighth director in July 2010, points out that the most important aspect of the organization's mission hasn't changed at all since its inception.

"The VT fuze was an absolutely astounding engineering accomplishment," said Semmel. "Imagine firing a light bulb out of a cannon with the know-how to allow it to not break prematurely. That was truly mind-boggling.

"But what drove us 70 years ago — making critical contributions to critical challenges — still drives us today," he said of the lab's work, in which basic physical concepts are applied to practical devices and systems or used in research. "The government turns to us when it's facing incredible problems that need solutions."

'Wide array of firsts'

APL's projects can be broken down into four basic areas of concentration: air and missile defense, force protection, asymmetric operations, and space. The lab's main government sponsors are the federal departments of defense and homeland security, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Security Agency.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game in some ways; we know things and we anticipate things," Semmel said in describing the lab's interaction with its government sponsors. "What can be done and what others can do overlaps."

As the decades ticked past, APL's noteworthy contributions kept piling up: the first supersonic guided missile using satellite navigation, which was a precursor to today's GPS devices; the first use of integrated circuits in space; the first rechargeable cardiac pacemaker to use space technology; and the first spacecraft landing on an asteroid.

Other accomplishments that merit mention among the lab's "wide array of firsts," according to Semmel, include the first photo of the Earth from space (1948), a microprocessor-driven prosthetic arm (1976), a disease surveillance system to track epidemics (2002), foliage-penetrating light detection and ranging system (2010), and a thought-driven prosthetic arm (2011).

Messenger, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, was launched in 2004, but is making news again. Though it was launched over seven years ago from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, it just began its second year of NASA mission operations in mid-March.

Excitement runs high over the prospects for another spacecraft that is still speeding toward its destination. Named New Horizons, it was launched in 2006 and is expected to reach Pluto in 2015 when it should provide detailed data from what APL still considers our solar system's ninth planet, said John Sommerer, head of the space sector.

"We get one chance to get every little bit of data that can be collected in one flyby," he said of APL's detailed planning for the encounter 3 billion miles away.